Developing a Toolbox of Strategies in Working With Young Children

byAlisa Dashefsky

Young children require a lot of adult support to help promote their adaptive expression of emotions, practice problem-solving and enhance their coping repertoire. As caregivers, it often can be challenging and stressful when children exhibit noncompliance with adult directives, displays of helplessness, and “meltdowns.” When behavioral challenges or problems emerge, usually the adult’s natural response is to search for a “quick fix” or an immediate solution to the problem. However, by focusing on the process itself of problem solving, caregivers are able to help children learn to cope with disappointments, experience opportunities for mastery and optimize children’s continued developmental growth and progress.

Promoting Adaptive Expression of Emotions

Helping young children with being able to express their feelings is naturally challenging. Since young children often do not have the words to effectively express themselves, they will often attempt to communicate their feelings in other ways, such as aggressive behaviors, temper tantrums, withdrawing and regressive behaviors. Furthermore, when children become upset and distressed, it often becomes even more challenging for them to identify their emotions and engage in adaptive coping strategies and self-soothing techniques. Adults can help children with their emotions through the use of reflective strategies. This involves the adults tuning into what they think is going on emotionally for the child and stating that to the child. For example, a child starts crying when the parent is leaving. Prior to using any redirection or problem-solving with the child, the adult could say, “When mommy leaves, it makes you feel sad,” “It’s hard to say good-bye to mommy,” or “You are missing your mom,” etc. Additionally, when children exhibit difficulties coping with disappointments or displays of helplessness, it can often be helpful for the adults to focus on reflection of the children’s feelings. For example, when a young child is having difficulty drawing a picture and begins to cry, it is often helpful for the adult to focus on validating the child’s feelings in that moment. The adult could say, “It is really hard when the picture does not come out the way you want. I know lots of kids get upset when they are having a hard time drawing pictures.” Also, adults can model the healthy expression of emotions for children by labeling their own feelings. For example, the adult drops something on the floor and says, “It is very frustrating when things fall.” Utilizing reflection of feelings helps promote and support children’s cognitive, language-communication and social-emotional development.

Young children utilize play as a means of expressing their emotions, practicing and rehearsing for daily life, and experiencing a sense of mastery. For example, preschool-aged children can often be observed engaging in pretend play involving themes of cooking in the kitchen, shopping at the grocery store, going to the doctor, attending school, creating family units, and acting-like powerful animals. Adults can help promote children’s adaptive expression of emotions by engaging in pretend play with them. For example, in preparing children for an upcoming doctor’s visit, it can often be helpful to utilize toys (e.g., puppets, stuffed animals) in order to “act-out” and practice “going to the doctor’s office.” Furthermore, adults can label various emotions of the characters within the context of the play. For example, if a stuffed bunny rabbit is going to the doctor, the adult could verbalize as the bunny, “I don’t want to go to the doctor. I’m scared.” Another character in the play might say, “I know you don’t like to go to the doctor. I know lots of bunnies get scared about going to the doctor. What helps bunnies when they feel scared?” Promoting opportunities for children to practice the expression of emotions through the use of play and the reading of books can be useful in supporting good mental health. Two good books for young children around feelings include: Today, I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis and Double Dip Feelings by Barbara S. Cain, MSW. Additionally, another good resource for adults to help promote children’s adaptive expression of emotions and positive communication is the book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Facilitating Cooperative Problem-Solving

Problem-solving with young children is an ongoing exercise that promotes and supports children’s sense of mastery. Children often benefit from adult support, through strategies such as scripting techniques, to help children effectively learn how to resolve problems and challenges. Problem-solving strategies can be utilized and implemented “in the moment” and “after the fact.” For example, when a child is observed kicking his/her feet in the classroom or at home, often the immediate and natural response is try to help resolve the problem. An adult may say to the child, “I have a spot you can go to if you can’t stop kicking your feet.” However, an alternative intervention could include the adult engaging the child in problem-solving strategies by asking the child, “What do we do with our feet in the classroom (or at home)?” Can you show me what we do with our feet in the classroom (or at home)?” This could enable the child to reflect the classroom (or home) rule (e.g., feet on the floor, etc) to the adult and explore alternative appropriate behaviors with her feet. Furthermore, if the child has difficulty identifying appropriate behavior(s), it is helpful to continue the problem-solving process. For example, a teacher could say:

Teacher: “What do we do with our feet in the classroom?”
Child: “We run.”
Teacher: “What could happen when we run in the classroom?”
Child: “It would be fun, I LIKE it.”
Teacher: “I see that you like to run. Where is it safe to run.”
Child: “I don’t know.”
Teacher: “Who could help us figure out where is a safe place to run?”
Child: (Child could name a peer or another adult to help)
Teacher: “Should we ask ___ to help us?

As adults, seeking a “quick fix” is often the natural response to resolve a problem. However, by practicing problem-solving strategies as depicted in the above example, children have the opportunity to enhance their problem-solving skills, build a sense of mastery and improve self-regulation. While the adult is often searching for the “perfect solution” (e.g., having the child stop kicking in the above example), it is the process itself that is most helpful in laying the foundation for decision-making, independence-training and coping with difficult situations or problems.

Emphasizing the Positive and Increasing Adaptive Behaviors

Focusing on positive behaviors helps foster and promote children’s display of adaptive behaviors and functioning. Through the use of a lot of praise, positive reflections, and “catching” children exhibiting good behaviors, adults can help support children’s display of appropriate behaviors and decrease negative behaviors. In utilizing this strategy, it is most helpful when adults frequently label children’s positive behaviors. For example, when “catching” a child’s good behaviors, the teacher might say to a child, “(child’s name), I really like how you are sitting at circle with your legs nice and quiet.” “____, Thank you for doing such a great job putting the blocks away.” “____, you are really working hard on your picture.” Furthermore, in addition to identifying children’s positive behaviors, adults can model adaptive expression of emotions as well by verbalizing statements such as, “When you show me your walking feet, I feel very happy.” These types of strategies that focus on positive behaviors tap into children’s natural drive for acceptance and adult attention. Furthermore, the use of redirection can also be useful in moving a child to a more appropriate situation without the child experiencing the “gain” of negative adult attention, thus inadvertently reinforcing the negative behavior. For example, engaging children in songs can often be a helpful strategy when children are having difficulty during transitions.

Another strategy for helping children to stop a negative behavior is the “ACT Rule” (seeParenting Your 1-to-4-Year -Old by Michael H. Popkin):

1. Accept the child’s wishes or feelings.

2. Communicate the rule.

3. Target a positive choice.

For example, if the child is running inappropriately:

1. The adult could say, “I know you like to run fast”
(Accepting the child’s wishes or feelings).

2. “Running is for outside; in the classroom, we use our walking feet”
(Communicating the Rule).

3. “Can you show me what a great walker you are”
or “when we go outside maybe you can show me what a good runner you are”
(Targeting a positive choice).

Parents, teachers and caregivers have to be able to “think on their feet,” be flexible and adjust their plans in response to the rapidly shifting demands when working with young children. This is a skill that comes with time and experience. It is often helpful to have a “toolbox” of strategies, which could be utilized in both a planned and spontaneous manner in working with children. Sometimes even when caregivers have a plethora of strategies in their “toolbox,” it can be challenging to manage children’s difficult behaviors. Therefore, at these times, it may be helpful for adults to consider consulting with teachers, child therapists and medical professionals to explore additional resources and strategies to help support caregivers and optimize children’s continued developmental growth and progress.

For Further Reading:

Cain, B. (2001). Double-Dip Feelings. Washington, DC: Imagination Press.

Curtis, J.L. (1998). Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day. NY:
Harper Collins Publishers, Joanna Cotler Books.

Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.
New York, NY: Rawson, Wade Publishers, Inc.

Popkin, M.H. (2004). Parenting Your 1-to-4-Year-Old. Kenworth, GA: Active Parenting